Military appeals court to decide: Was Marine’s suicide attempt a crime?

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 21, 2012 

— Marine Corps Pvt. Lazzaric T. Caldwell committed a crime when he tried to kill himself.

Now, amid growing attention to the rash of wartime suicides, Caldwell’s troubling case will present judges with a legal dilemma, balancing the dictates of military discipline against evolving notions of mental health. What happens next will shape military law and order alike.

“I just didn’t feel like I wanted to live anymore, and I feel like I couldn’t have put up with things anymore,” Caldwell told officials, court records show.

Caldwell, of Oceanside, Calif., pleaded guilty to “self injury without intent to avoid service” after slitting his wrists in January 2010 on Okinawa, Japan. He has since reconsidered his plea. On Tuesday, the nation’s highest military appeals court is scheduled to take up his case.

In the 40-minute oral argument, the five members of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces will confront whether a bona fide suicide attempt should be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. To be successfully prosecuted, the suicide attempt also must be deemed conduct that causes “prejudice to good order and discipline” or has a “tendency to bring the service into disrepute.”

The case marks the first time since the Gulf War of 1990-1991 that the suicide attempt issue has reached the high military panel.

“The difference between then and now is that our understanding of suicide and suicide attempts has progressed quite a bit in the last 20 years,” Navy Lt. Michael B. Hanzel, Caldwell’s attorney, said Wednesday.

No one disputes that Caldwell was an imperfect Marine. He received a bad-conduct discharge after also being convicted of larceny, driving without a license and possessing the drug known as spice. But on the delicate self-injury issue, the attorneys involved – Hanzel of Bremerton, Wash., and Marine Corps Maj. David N. Roberts of Washington, D.C., who represents the government – present starkly different perspectives.

“Surely, neither Congress nor the president intended (the military code) to be used as a strict liability statute to prosecute mentally ill people who make genuine suicide attempts, particularly when there are strong indications their mental illness played a role,” Hanzel argued in a legal brief.

Roberts responded that it’s up to politicians to decide whether to change the military proscription against self-injury – a proscription, officials stress, that helps retain all-important discipline.

“There is no basis in law for this court to create a ‘suicide exception’ to crimes prosecuted under the Uniform Code,” he wrote in a legal brief. “That policy distinction is best left to the political branches.”

Certainly, Congress and the Pentagon have begun paying much more attention to military suicides over the course of the long Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Last year, the 301 known suicides accounted for 20 percent of all U.S. military deaths. From 2001 to August 2012, the U.S. military counted 2,676 suicides.

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